I tweeted this list a few weeks ago, at a moment when I was struggling with producing prose and needed to remind myself that yes, I am a professional and I actually do know what I am doing most of the time. This list seemed to resonate with folks, so I thought it might be nice to repeat it here with a little bit more elaboration.
1. First drafts always take longer than I think they will.
This always surprises me, and no matter how much I warn students about this, it usually sneaks up and bites them on the butt, too. If I had a dime for every time I've set an arbitrary, and in retrospect wildly impossible, deadline for a first draft, I'd have that lake home in northern Minnesota by now. Don't get me wrong: it's good to set deadlines. But they need to be reasonable, and set in relation to the actual realities of one's life and calendar. For awhile I did a thing where I would set a deadline that I totally thought I could meet, and then simply add six weeks to it. Honestly, for first drafts? That wasn't far off. Sure beats feeling terrible about broken promises to myself.
2. If you give yourself 10 minutes to just get going, you'll get on a roll.
My one-time marathon running coach* and former editor of Runner's World, Joe Henderson, says that even if you don't feel like running that day, you can always get out and tell yourself just to run a mile. By the time you're only a few minutes into that mile, you've likely forgotten your resistance and will be running happily. Same thing happens for me with writing: I just tell myself I'll go in and tinker a bit with what I wrote yesterday, or do a little free-writing (see #5), and before I know it, I'm off and running. "Write a mile" works every time. (*Yes! I am a terribly slow, amateur runner, but Joe Henderson actually WAS my marathon coach at the 2003 Dick Beardsley Marathon Camp in Minnesota - as evidence, here's an article I wrote about it.)
3. Regularity matters more than quantity (or even quality).
I can't emphasize this enough. Really, this one could be the only thing on this list. There is never all the time in the world to write. But there is almost always some time. Writing regularly means that I don't lose track of my train of thought, that the project grows organically from each earlier effort, and before I know it (plus six weeks), I've got that first draft I've been desperate to achieve. I started fencing a few years ago, and fencing's way of keeping score is apt here: when you score in fencing it's called a "touch." I've started thinking of my writing not in terms of the number of pages I've written or the number of hours worked, but in the number of "touches" - as in, "I touched my project four times this week." Combine this idea with the Pomodoro Technique, and you're good to go. "Tomatoes" = touches.
4. When I'm stuck, asking myself, "What do I really want to say?" can usually get things rolling again.
I think I stole this one from Natalie Goldberg. It works. It gets you past worrying about what Goldberg calls "Monkey Mind," that imaginary advisor, editor, or worst critic who lives inside all of us and tells us we suck. We don't suck; we just haven't figured out what we want to say yet.
5. When in doubt, free-write.
I stole this one from Natalie Goldberg, too. I first read her Writing Down the Bones in the summer of 1989 and it changed the way I write, both creatively and professionally. Vomit it all on the page, and then clean it up. Pretty picture, isn't it? But that's not all you do. Goldberg advises you to free-write, then set it aside for a few hours or a day. When you go back to it, underline/highlight sentences and ideas that resonate, that reflect what you really wanted to say, that hit the mark. Then work from those. I go back to this strategy again and again, and it always works.
(originally published at first efforts, 12.17.08)
Every few years I reread Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write. There's no precise calendar for when; no alarm bells go off when it's time. I just know. And right now, it's time.
As the name of this blog attests, I'm something of a connoisseur of books about writing. I have my favorites: Lamott, Goldberg, Cameron. But Brenda Ueland has always had a special hold on me. It's the first book on writing and creativity I ever read. I bought it during the summer of 1988 when I was working at Bearskin Lodge, at a now defunct Grand Marais book-and-art-supply store called The Book Station. I read it after work on the dock outside my cabin and before work in the lodge dining room overlooking the lake. My copy still contains the Book Station bookmark I got the day I bought it.
There are a number of reasons I love this book. Brenda Ueland was a Minnesotan and the book is replete with place names like Wayzata and Lake Minnetonka. Brenda Ueland was the daughter of Clara Ueland, the awesome woman suffrage activist. And the book was published in 1938 - love those 1930s! - which means that when Brenda Ueland frets about the bad state of contemporary writing, she complains about stuff like Eleanor Roosevelt's columns (which she derides as superficial).
The primary reason I love this book, though, is because it tells the truth. Because it has chapter titles like "Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It For Their Writing." And because of images like this:
"Inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness. I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten,-happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another" (49-50).
Research news, commentary on visual politics, and a few old blog posts given new life.